At the November 10 Parks Advisory Committee (PAC) meeting, a presentation was given on the Trap Neuter and Release (TNR) program to deal with the feral cats in Mooney Grove. The presentation was given by Dr. Nanette Kuswa, owner of Companion Animal Medical Center. Kuswa and the Visalia Feral Cat Coalition (VFCC) have been working for two years to educate Neil Pilegard, Tulare County Park manager, and the Tulare County Board of Supervisors (TBOS) on the effectiveness of TNR in dealing with cat colonies.
TNR traps feral cats, neuters and spays them, gives them their shots and flea treatments and then returns them to their home or the location where they were trapped. In the case of Mooney Grove, the cats are fed everyday and get an application of frontline to kill fleas every month by volunteers. Mooney Grove’s colony is now stabilized. Besides trying to get an agreement with the county, an additional reason for the presentation was to prevent any further trapping and killing of Mooney Grove cats because the volunteers have become very attached to them.
It has been Supervisor Phil Cox’ and Pilegard’s wish that after the cats are trapped that they not be returned to the park. They also do not want volunteers coming in to feed them. Their goal is to completely rid the park of cats.
Kuswa explained that returning the fixed healthy cats prevents the vacuum effect, which is when the more cats join the colony in the absence of dominant male cats. Thus, trapping and killing makes the problem worse by increasing the number of cats and creates a large, unhealthy colony.
Mooney Grove will always have a population of feral cats because it is the perfect environment. There is a food source and shelter, mainly in the older buildings and bridges. The neighboring mobile home park was adding to the cat population in Mooney Grove, but the VFCC has been invited in to deal with their feral cats and the problem is under control.
Kuswa said that pet abandonment at the park was not a huge problem. The problem is that cats are always fertile and can start having kittens at six months of age. They can also produce litters three times a year. They only ovulate when breeding, which gives them a nearly 100% success rate. There are about 40 “hot spots” in Visalia where large colonies of feral cats live.
Although they have not had the cooperation of the supervisors or park staff, the VFCC has succeeded in stabilizing the cat population in Mooney Grove. Kuswa says it takes time, but the numbers show TNR works. In the summer of 2013, there were 87 feral cats found in the park and now the museum colony has two cats and the bridge colony has 10. Because of attrition and finding homes for some of the kittens, the colony is small, healthy, stabilized and preventing “outsiders” from coming on to their territory.
All the PAC members seemed to agree with the merits of TNR but most were not familiar with how Pilegard and the Tulare County Supervisors felt about cats in Mooney Grove. Their official policy has always been to trap the cats and send them to animal control where nearly all are euthanized.
“Trapping and killing has been around for the last 50 years, and if it worked I wouldn’t be here,” Kuswa said. “When you remove the dominant cat in the colony, more cats show up and the colony actually grows. Besides, trapping and killing cost about $140 per cat, TNR is free.”
She added, that the Central Valley is at the tail end of the curve in adopting TNR while the rest of the country, and many parts of the world, use TNR to handle feral cat colonies. Every established animal agency supports the program. In fact the only people the Valley Voice has found who do not agree with the program are members of the Tulare County Supervisors and Pilegard.
The slow acceptance by Tulare County of TNR has its origins in an “incident” at the old museum during the summer of 2013.
According to several sources working at Mooney Grove, a volunteer trying to help with the park’s cats heard that Amy King, Tulare county Historical Museum curator, and Pilegard trapped two mother cats and some kittens. All died except one kitten that escaped. There had been a previous agreement that King and Pilegard would honor a moratorium on trapping and killing cats until the VFCC could come up with a more humane plan. A volunteer, affiliated with VFCC but not a member, said she confronted King in the museum and threatened to call the police and file an animal cruelty report. King, in turn, reported to Pilegard that the volunteer threatened her with bodily harm. Two museum employees disputed King’s version of the story and as a result were promptly fired by Pilegard.
Since the “incident” Supervisor Cox and Pilegard have said that TNR will not be allowed in Mooney Grove. But, because of the effectiveness of the program and cost savings to the county, PAC is taking TNR under consideration. The supervisors may be open to changing their minds if the PAC recommends the program.
Kuswa ended her presentation with, “Volunteers will do the job the humane way. If you want to kill the cats you are going to have to pay for it.”
The PAC asked that John Hess write up a tentative agreement between the VFCC and the TCBOS. They plan on revisiting the issue at their next meeting.
Other issues covered during the meeting were an update on the wells and possible strategies to deal with local geese. The new Mooney Grove well should be up and functioning in three weeks. The domestic pump, which is part of the same well, will take longer because there needs to be additional testing. The well was drilled to 600 feet and the pumps are at 357 feet.
Pilegard presented his research on how to handle the geese problem at the park. Though the patrons of the park enjoy the geese and the goslings in the spring, there is a shortage of maintenance crew to clean up the goose poop that engulfs the walkway around the pond.
Pilegard said that the US Department of Fish and Wildlife prohibits the killing of geese, so the only fix is preventing their eggs from hatching in the first place. It is not a quick fix but it would break the cycle. The best way to prevent the eggs from hatching is coating them with corn oil. The oil deprives the egg of oxygen and the embryo will not grow. A problem with this option is that the nests have to be found and the Mooney Grove geese have learned how to hide them. The second option is feeding the geese OvoControl-G, which prevents the egg from being fertilized. The PAC members were concerned about the safety of the product to other wildlife and the safety of the littlest park patrons who may ingest the chemical.
Progress Made On the Pond
Pilegard said he has been making progress on the pond as he hauled out six truckloads of millefoil, an invasive weed. He also put in a bluish lake dye that blocks the sunlight from filtering through the water and chokes the plants. This does not work when irrigating the park because they recycle the water through the pond. Thus the dye would be diluted to a point where it would not work. Pilegard said that dealing with the weeds in the pond with any biological control could take a couple of years.
At the July 21 TCBOS meeting, the Tulare County Health Advisory Board made the recommendation to ban smoking at all county parks. The recommendation elicited the most vociferous objection from Supervisor Allen Ishida, who is a long-time smoker.
“This is a nanny move. It denies me my freedoms,” he said.
Pilegard is also not in favor of the ban because he says that it would discourage people from using the park. He suggested that PAC survey the people who use the park to see if they would be in favor of a ban. Mike Chrisman, Chairman of the Park Advisory Commission, suggested that they research into what other counties do about regulating smoking.
Supervisor Pete Vander Poel, who was responsible for the formation of the Health Advisory Board, said that the new ordinance is to protect the general public. He and the rest of the board requested that the PAC review the issue.
A representative from the Health Advisory Board said during the PAC meeting that enforcement can be as simple as placing signs and just telling people who light up that the park is smoke-free. A park in Exeter has just gone smoke-free and attendance has increased. His experience has shown that “Most people understand that you cannot smoke in a public area,” he said. According to a recent study, California Tobacco Facts and Figures 2015, Tulare County, along with several other Valley counties, has the highest rate of smoking in the state at 17%. Santa Clara County has the least with 9%.
Visalia Councilwoman Amy Shuklian was in attendance and said that she made sure that the dog park at Plaza Park was smoke free. She said that Visalia had just gone through the debate of banning smoking in public places and it was an involved process.
Smoking is already banned in the park from June through October because it’s a fire hazard. It is also banned around the play grounds. The committee directed John Hess to find out what Visalia decided and to research smoking bans elsewhere.